Kerouac’s Lost Movie

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This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.

Ever since On the Road was published,  sporadic attempts to bring it to the screen — including a series of adaptations by distinguished writers (Michael Herr, Russell Banks, and Barry Gifford) and even announcements of casting calls — have, until recently, come to nothing. Meanwhile the film has been playing for over fifty years in the imaginations of Kerouac’s ardent readers, who have never been troubled by what Hollywood producers evidently saw as the book’s great drawback — the lack of a storyline with that limiting three-act structure that has been imposed upon American filmmaking for far too long. In Kerouac’s novel, it was the intensification of language and feeling, rather than plot developments, that brought the book to an ecstatic natural climax, followed  by a swift, somewhat melancholy denouement. By the time Jack wrote the famous scroll version of On the Road in 1951, after five years of highly fictionalized false starts, he was already in  rebellion against conventional storytelling.

When Jack was a kid spending his Saturday afternoons at the Royal Theater in Lowell, Massachusetts, the Depression films that taught him about the America he would one day explore were all in black and white — just like the only Beat film that in my estimation qualifies as art, Robert Frank’s 1959 Pull My Daisy…. By the fall of 1957 as film offers started to come in, Jack was willing to visualize On the Road’s American landscapes in Technicolor and Cinemascope, but for him the  important feature of any projected adaptation remained language rather than spectacle — the brilliant zigzagging flights of riveting talk in the intimate darkness of a speeding car through which two restless, troubled, highly articulate seekers turn on and come to know each other. The secret storyline of On the Road, influenced by Jack’s admiration for Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, was in fact Sal Paradise’s pursuit of his alter ego and spiritual brother, Dean Moriarty, in an attempt to make himself whole and rediscover the joy of being alive even in the shadow of death. “Let the dialog roll,” was Jack’s main advice to both Marlon Brando and the Twentieth Century Fox producer Jerry Wald — advice the Brazilian director Walter Salles essentially ignored.     

“I had to betray the book in order to be faithful to it,” Salles announced too confidently last spring shortly before On the Road was released at Cannes. One of his earliest decisions was to junk most of the dialog Kerouac had written and replace it with clumsy approximations of Beat talk and the inept improvisations of his stars. Most of the memorable theme-bearing lines are gone from the film, including Dean Moriarty’s famous statement “We know time.”  I knew something was very wrong from the moment Sal meets Dean for the first time and greets him with, “How’s it going, Cowboy.”  As played by the British actor Sam Riley, Sal is a vacuous figure with little to say for himself rather than a young man with a brooding and profound understanding of all that he sees.  Apparently, Salles’ screenwriter Jose Rivera wasn’t up to the challenging task of creating dialog for this character, who is more of a listener and observer than a speaker in Jack’s novel.

Salles has put his emphasis upon spectacle, giving us beautifully shot scenery in Canada and Patagonia as well as the U.S. and attractive and bankable young stars who disbrobe throughout the film at the drop of a hat. What’s gone from his version of On the Road is not only  Kerouac’s language but Kerouac’s spirit. There is little trace of the spiritual search for belief that motivates the novel’s characters, and hardly any of  the social context that would give  moviegoers a sense of what Sal and Dean were rebelling against and even caused them to identify with all that acting out.  Instead we get  episode after episode of frenetic but essentially meaningless  physical and sexual activity. I doubt that Jack, who brooded deeply upon the ways Hollywood “only enhanced our own wild dreams” and whose books are full of cinematic references, would have been surprised by this outcome.  In 1952, standing in a crowd watching as a Joan Crawford vehicle was being filmed on a foggy San Francisco street, he presciently observed that “the movies have nothing now but great technique to show.”  

In his twenties, Kerouac sporadically supported himself by synopsizing scripts for film studios and tried his own hand at screenwriting. He wrote a Christmas tearjerker  that he unsuccessfully tried to sell. The abandoned novels he wrote between 1947 and 1950 provide proof that he developed considerable facility at dreaming up exactly the kind of elaborate, sagalike plots that movie producers might have gone for. But the writing he began to do in 1951 marked the resurgence of a very old idea he’d put aside but never forgotten. He was only eleven when he’d had a radical thought: instead of imitating the heroes of the movie serials he’d seen, why couldn’t he  be the hero of his own movie, watching himself as he went through an entire ordinary day? By the time Jack finally succeeded in writing On the Road, he had nearly lost all interest in producing novels in which he disguised himself, created composite characters and fictionalized real events. No sooner had he finished his road novel than he felt there was far too much fiction in it and started work on the “inserts” that would lead to Visions of Cody, the book that finally fully liberated the spontaneous voice of his mature “true life” novels.   

The weeks following the publication of On the Road in September 1957 were an overwhelmingly bewildering time for Jack and the old misgivings about his six-year-old novel that he kept to himself may have contributed to it. Hungry to experience every reward and aspect of his unexpected fame, Jack simultaneously wished he could go off and hide in a mountain cabin.  While On the Road was being both praised to the skies and torn apart with unusual ferocity by members of the American literary establishment, he harbored a secret fear: “Tonight I’m worried that I can’t write as well as I did in 1956.”

By mid-October, the spoils of Jack’s fame included a $110,000 bid for On the Road from Warner Brothers, which included the opportunity to play Sal Paradise himself. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Jerry Wald, the prototype for the venal producer Sammy Glick in Budd Shulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run, had already dispatched a memo to the story editor at 20th Century Fox. Eager to make a film about the hot subject of the “beat-up generations,” Wald, who would not come forward with an offer until January,  was dredging up some sure fire ways to give On the Road “the dramatic fury” that would lead to an uplifting moralistic message (the very opposite of what Jack had intended) and “box-office attractiveness.”    

The most exciting prospect, as far as Jack and his agent Sterling Lord were concerned, was a film starring Marlon Brando, who had started his own production company headed by his father, in conjunction with Paramount. By October 15, Brando, who had just gotten married, had expressed interest in the novel, but had not gotten around to actually reading it.  Brando as Dean Moriarty! — the idea seemed so perfect, if not bound to work out, that Sterling Lord raised his asking price to $150,000 and turned down the offer from Warner’s, hoping Warner’s and Paramount would bid against each other. From Orlando, Florida, where he just had escaped to the quiet of his mother’s house, Jack  over-confidently wrote Neal Cassady: “Brando definitely interested soon as he crawls outa bed,” forgetfully offering his old buddy the option of playing Dean.

Read the rest of this story at Reality Sandwich.

Joyce Johnson is the author of  The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac and the 1983 memoir Minor Characters.

Photo byMoyan Brenn, licensed under Creative Commons

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